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Maine law mandates Wabenaki culture course

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AUGUSTA, Maine - Maine tribes have one victory to celebrate after a year of legal combat. The state has adopted a law requiring public schools to teach about the Wabenaki confederation which encompasses all four of the state's tribes.

Chiefs and governors of the tribes gathered in the state capitol for a signing ceremony with Maine Gov. Angus King, who remains a determined foe on the issue of tribal sovereignty. King supported the education bill pushed by Penobscot Tribal Representative Donna Loring, however. It passed the Legislature in early June without opposition.

The bill requires an American Indian studies component in the already mandatory Maine studies curriculum. It will also set up a 15-member commission to develop material and advise educators in setting up the course. Tribal leaders will choose eight members, a majority of the body.

"This is probably the most detailed bill in the country," Loring said. "We're hoping that other tribes and states will look at the model and use it."

In the course of the year's legal battles, tribal members have often deplored the lack of public knowledge about their history and even their existence. Brenda Commander, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, said this "can go a long way to clarify some of the issues that have caused so much tension."

It requires the course to cover four main topics, including first of all "Maine tribal governments and political systems, and their relationship with local, state, national and international governments." The course also must touch on tribal cultural systems, territories and economic systems.

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Loring said this requirement will introduce students to present-day concerns, as well as tribal history.

Work on setting up the commission will start within 30 days, she said with a full body due by 2004 and the curriculum should be in use by the 2004-05 school year. The body will work under the auspices of the Maine Indian Tribe State Commission.

In months of shepherding the bill through the Legislature, Loring said its sponsors worked hard to avoid financial objections. The commission won't draw on the state's General Fund, which is very tight this year, she said. And school districts concerned about cost will be able to get help from the state Department of Education.

The political homework paid off, she said. "It made us able to get it through the Legislature twice under the hammer and through the Senate twice under the hammer," meaning with unanimous consent.

She said the work was possible only because she and Donald Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy are tribal representatives in the Legislature.

The tribal representatives don't have a vote, but a move is afoot to expand their role. A bill was offered earlier this session to give them a vote in committee on measures affecting tribes. It failed to pass, but may be offered next session.

A fourth tribe in Maine, in addition to the Penobscots, Maliseets and Passamaquoddys, is the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, centered in the far northern town of Presque Isle. Another 28 bands of Mic Macs live across the border in Canada. The Passamaquoddy Tribe occupies two reservations in Maine, each with its own government.